Asbestos Exposure Spreads from Libby, Montana to Minneapolis, Minnesota

The extensive effects of asbestos mining in the United States continue to be discovered. Though mining ceased completely in 2002, the deadly consequences of this mineral have far from vanished. Perhaps the most notorious site in the United States is the vermiculite ore mine near Libby, Montana. Last owned by Western Minerals/W.R. Grace, the mine operated from 1920 to 1990 and regularly shipped the vermiculite ore throughout the country for processing. The vermiculite mined in Libby contained a type of asbestos named tremolite-actinolite. A recent study by Environmental Health Perspectives examined community residents in Minneapolis, Minnesota who never worked at a Western Minerals/W.R. Grace plant or lived with someone who did, but nevertheless developed evidence of abnormalities in the lungs.

Pintas & Mullins Law Firm warn the public that asbestos exposure is not limited to occupational workers and their families. If you have lived near a processing plant known to have used asbestos, contact an asbestos attorney today to explore your legal rights. Libby shipped hundreds of thousands of ore throughout the United States and the world to be processed in high-temperature furnaces and utilized in hundreds of products.

The vermiculite mined in Libby contains a specific kind of asbestos that is more carcinogenic than any other type. The fibers are sharply pointed, like needles, and are able to penetrate the lining of the lungs more easily and severely. Thousands of internal documents from the company prove that officials knew about the contaminated vermiculite for decades, and never mentioned the danger to workers or consumers.

The Minneapolis processing facility was one of approximately 250 such facilities in the U.S. that received Libby ore. In addition to the vermiculite product, the processing produced a waste material that contained up to 10% amphibole asbestos. The waste was piled on the plant’s property, which is located in a residential neighborhood, and offered freely to the community. Neighborhood residents hauled the rock from the piles and used it for gardening and as fill material for driveways and yards. Neighborhood children also played on the piles of vermiculite processing waste, as access to the site was not restricted. The proximity of the neighborhood to the plant and the opportunities for contact with the waste rock created a scenario for substantial non-occupational exposure to asbestos.

All members of the cohort were classified by cumulative exposure experienced before January 1980. Participants attended a local medical clinic that specializes in occupational health screening and could perform plain-film X-rays. The prevalence of pleural abnormalities, parenchymal opacities, and other evidence of asbestosis was determined with a single radiograph. The presence of pleural abnormalities (pleural thickening and pleural plaques) was the primary indicator of asbestos-induced changes in the lungs.

461 people completed the clinic visit. Of these, playing on the waste piles was reported by 180 (39%) of participants and 223 (48%) reported at least one activity resulting in exposure to the waste material. Prevalence of pleural abnormalities was 15.4%, though seven participants had X-rays of insufficient quality for reads. Consensus readings of diffuse pleural thickening and pleural plaques were reported in 5 and 45 participants, respectively. Participants diagnosed with pleural thickening or pleural plaques were older and more likely to be male, to have held an asbestos-exposed job, and to report activities associated with contaminated vermiculite contact.

These results support the theory that non-occupational community exposure to asbestos fibers from the processing of Libby vermiculite produced measurable effects. An estimated 138,000 tons of Libby ore were processed at the WM/WRG plant in Minneapolis. The resulting emissions and subsequent use of the waste rock contaminated areas up to 2 miles from the plant. Previous research in Libby has shown that playing on piles of waste rock is associated with changes in lung function and is a risk factor for asbestos-related disease.

Reports such as this reinforce the notion that non-occupational asbestos exposure has hazardous consequences. Asbestos lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm warn the public of the little-known effects of long-term, low-level exposure to the toxic mineral and urge those affected by the mining and processing of asbestos to contact a lung cancer attorney immediately to discuss your legal options.

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